- Tuesday, 08 October 2019
- Written by D.G. Martin
In this time of political rancor and hate, it is nice to find something that old time politicos agree on regardless of political affiliation, when they answer this question: Who is North Carolina’s most colorful political figure?
The answer today is clear: It is Rufus Edmisten, Democratic nominee for governor in 1984, attorney general, secretary of state and author of a recent book, “That’s Rufus: A Memoir of Tar Heel Politics, Watergate and Public Life.”
Edmisten begins his book not with his birth and growing up on a farm just outside the mountain town of Boone but with his favorite story. In 1973, he served the president of the United States with a subpoena on behalf of the Senate Watergate Committee, which was led by another North Carolinian, Sen. Sam Ervin. Serving the president with this demand for the records ultimately led to President Nixon’s resignation. Edmisten’s position as Ervin’s right-hand man made him a nationally known personality that he leveraged into political stardom.
Edmisten makes the story a good one. He describes the frantic rush to prepare the subpoena document, including a heated discussion about using correction fluid to cover a mistake and a ride to the Executive Office Building where the president’s lawyers respectfully accepted the subpoena. Then the cheeky Rufus reached in his pocket, pulled out his copy of the Constitution and gave it to the president’s lawyers in a pointed message that they should study it.
This incident and Edmisten’s work with Sen. Ervin were the launch pad for his political career.
Edmisten’s prelaunch story is set in the North Carolina mountains on a farm near Boone, where he grew up tending cows and pigs and working fields of cabbages and tobacco. He made extra money plowing garden plots for his neighbors and used a tractor to visit his kinfolks around the mountains.
After success in athletics, Future Farmers of America, student politics and academics in high school, and almost winning a Morehead Scholarship, he landed at UNC-Chapel Hill. From there, he made his way to Washington, D.C., teaching at a Catholic high school, attending law school at George Washington and securing a low-level job on Sen. Ervin’s staff. Edmisten soon became one of the senator’s full-time trusted assistants in the Watergate-Nixon impeachment matter.
The “That’s Rufus” chapter on Watergate is good background for those following the current battle between Congress and another president.
He returned to North Carolina in 1974 and mounted a successful campaign for attorney general. His triumph over a host of prominent Democrats gave notice he would run for governor someday.
That day came in 1984 when Gov. Jim Hunt ran for the U.S. Senate and a host of Democrats lined up to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Edmisten won in a brutal primary runoff against Eddie Knox and then lost the general election to Jim Martin.
Some believe he lost because he made disparaging remarks about barbecue. His version of that incident is, by itself, worth the price of the book. But Edmisten says it was Ronald Reagan’s “sticky coattails” that “swept both me and Jim Hunt away from our dreams. We were not alone, either. The sweep was broad and far reaching.”
Edmisten felt crestfallen and abandoned. “The ache in the bottom of my stomach was so great nothing appealed to me except finding some dark place to crawl away and hide,” he writes. “I swear I saw people cross the street so they wouldn’t have to talk to me.”
“That’s Rufus” describes how Edmisten came back from that defeat, won election as secretary of state, lost that position in disgrace, came back as a successful lawyer and lobbyist and learned lessons that will be important for every citizen.
In a future column I will share some of that wisdom.
- Monday, 23 September 2019
- Written by D.G. Martin
“You shouldn’t be so worried about the transition in the barbecue world.”
Jim Auchmutey was trying to reassure John Shelton Reed and me about our loss of old-time barbecue restaurants, including Wilber’s in Goldsboro and Allen & Son in Chapel Hill.
Auchmutey wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years, specializing in stories about the South and its history and culture. His new book, “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” is a must-read for barbecue fans and social history students. Retired UNC-Chapel Hill professor Reed is one of North Carolina’s barbecue gurus and co-author of “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”
Auchmutey understands how we are grieving the loss of our barbecue icons, but he urged us to consider some positive developments. “Young people who have been on the barbecue contest circuit have learned the science of heating and cooking meats. They are better than some of the old masters, and they are opening up restaurants where the barbecue is more consistently good than some of the old masters.”
He pointed out that the young restaurant owners are expanding their menus. And not just with ribs and beef briquettes. They are experimenting with wood-fired dishes from all over the world, adding opportunities for expanding the palate.
Reed and I conceded that there are some fine new restaurants, such as Picnic in Durham, where young owners have delivered outstanding results, thanks to careful sourcing of the meats and consistent cooking methods.
But, we told Auchmutey, there is a problem. The new places have to charge higher prices to cover the increased rent, new cooking equipment, loan payments and compliance with new construction and environmental requirements.
Higher prices and fancier menus mean we do not get the same mix of construction workers, white collar people, students and folks of modest means. Reed held out Stamey’s in Greensboro as the ideal, where a simple barbecue sandwich with fixings can be within the lunch budget of almost everybody who works for a living.
These newer places, Reed said, don’t give us a place where people from all walks of life can come together for a good meal at a modest price.
Something like what is happening to barbecue restaurants here in North Carolina is happening to other diners across the country according to a story by Steven Kurutz in The New York Times last month.
Kurutz describes the Oakhurst Diner in Millerton, New York, as “a living time capsule.”
“Housed in the original 1950s Silk City dining car, it screams classic diner: crimped stainless-steel facade, Formica counter with stools, pink-and-blue neon sign, specials scrawled on chalkboards.”
“But,” he writes, “the nods to midcentury nostalgia mostly end there.”
He explains that the menu includes a bowl of seaweed and brown rice, kimchi, and a hamburger made from “grass-fed and grass-finished” beef. That fancy hamburger costs $16.
It is the “same look and vibe as the classic steel original, but the food has been upgraded to reflect current tastes.”
“And,” mourns Kurutz, “So was born the greasy spoon serving avocado toast and deconstructed chicken potpie.”
Kurutz introduces and quotes Richard J.S. Gutman, author of “American Diner Then and Now,” who explains the current appeal of the old diners. “You feel at home in the diner whether you’ve been there dozens of times or it’s your first time. There’s a buzz inside. There’s a kind of energy when you’re sitting stool to stool, cheek by jowl, asking for the ketchup. That feeling, that place you’d go with your grandpa or your auntie, where is that anymore? There’s something so democratic about diners. They’re part of the community. I think that’s what people are craving.”
It is also what Reed and I are craving and what we are missing as our old-time barbecue places bite the dust.